As a grandfather, I now regret my misguided childhood indifference to the snippets of my own grandparents’ talk about being taught Polish grammar in their basement. They had been born in Poland in the late 1800’s – a time when their homeland had been “disappeared” under the welter of partitions of the previous century. Their basement home schooling was a response to the criminalization of the use or instruction of their native tongue – one of many efforts by Tsar Alexander II to Russify the Polish Slavs. If only they were alive today, how I would be pressing them for details!
Of course using the eradication of a language as a weapon to murder a culture isn’t something restricted to countries other than our own. In a recent edition of Orion magazine – that wonderful ad-free chronicler of the natural world – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of her Potawatomi grandfather being sent to the Carlisle Indian School of US Cavalry officer Captain Richard Henry Pratt at around the same time the Tsar was busy throttling Polish. There, children were forbidden from using the Potowotami language as part of the school’s avowed purpose, in the founder’s own words, as a means to “kill the indian and save the man.” To Pratt’s credit, he was among a minority of conquering Americans who did not consider native Americans to be ‘subhumans’ and is credited with being one of the first people to use the term ‘racism’ in a pejorative sense to criticize policies of racial segregation . But his willingness to blame the native American way of life while apparently believing in the individual native American’s biological equality bespeaks the complexity of issues of nature vs. nurture.
Kimmerer goes on to explore ways English and Potowotami portray different views of the relationship between man and the rest of the world – perhaps best exemplified by the familiar pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’. In English the two former are reserved almost exclusively for fellow human beings and the last for nearly everything else. The Potawatomi tongue, however, avoids pronouns and relies more on verbs and word placement in their stead. Verbs come in two forms, one which relates to inanimate objects (‘it’ in English) but the other for animate ones. As a result, humans stand on equal footing with flora and fauna and even, possibly, some important rocks. As Kimmerer so eloquently puts it:
“You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is a mere object (italics are mine). Birds, bugs and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are. There is no it for nature…………..personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadee.”
Kimmerer takes her thoughts two steps further. In one she explores ways in which blurring the bright English linguistic line between humans and the rest might ameliorate the harm done by the extractive, capitalization-heavy foundation of much of modern Western civilization. In the other she considers replacing ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as ‘it’ with the word ‘ki’. Then she reflects on how this might even help us be more humble and worshipful when we exploit a natural resource or take a non-human life. (It might also, it seems to me, serve to defuse some of our counterproductive gender conflicts.)
Authoritarian linguicide, however, is not the only way cultures and worldviews can be eradicated. Robert Macfarlane in his wordly-wise book, Landmarks, explores historical word disappearance and reflects on how this may mirror or influence our thinking. In the process he reports that the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s newest edition has made some telling, and to my mind sinister, substitutions:
“Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.”
The logic behind the editors’ choices is clear and largely driven by modern usage, but the implications give one pause, or at least should. Aside from frequency of use those new introductions are all products of the human brain with all its limitations and distortions. Somebody or somebodies had an idea and that drove each word’s creation. But the deleted words had a different origin. Somebody standing under an oak got bopped on the head by something, or was gathering nutlike things to grind into flour, or saw a squirrel running off with something in ki’s (sic) mouth and needed a word to describe the object. The real meaning, the full meaning, the comprehensive meaning of the thing the word ‘acorn’ stands for is enormously – perhaps infinitely – complex and ranges from the genetic code it contains, the symmetry and biochemistry of the acorn itself, the magnificent oak tree it has the potential to produce etc., etc. And those new introductions? I’ll admit some of them are kind of complicated. I can’t begin to explain how broadband works. But there are lots of people who can and some body or some team of somebodies thought it up and got it to work. Every one of those new introductions signify the physical manifestations of someone’s idea and therefore are entirely limited by the creative imagination of a mere person. The word ‘acorn’ and all those other deletions signify the creative imagination of something very else.
Weaponizing the eradication of a language to murder a culture may be more sinister than the Oxford editors’ actions. But the consequences – unintended or not – are similar. The Oxford Junior Dictionary’s linguistic move forebodes an eradication of awareness of the natural world through death by a thousand cuts. As an act of resistance, when my grandchildren come to visit I plan to take them down to the basement and talk to them about acorns, newts and otters.
Go, Grandpa! Don’t take them down to the basement, take them outside!
In your search for environmental and social justice, thanks for thinking about words as part of our precious heritage.